FOUNDED IN 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, Amritsar was built on a site donated by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Located in the heart of the city is the Golden Temple¬† the Sikh community’s holiest shrine, surrounded by a maze of lanes and 18 fortified gateways. In 1984, parts of the Golden Temple were badly damaged during an army operation to flush out extremists holed up inside, who were demanding a separate Sikh homeland. It has now been repaired and carefully restored to its original glory.

The temple complex is actually a city within a city, and the main entrance is through its northern gateway, known as the Darshani Darwaza, which also houses he Central Sikh Museum, On display are collections of paintings, coins, manuscripts and arms, that combine to create a vivid picture of Sikh history. Steps lead down to the Parikrama (marble pathway) which encircles the Ambit Sarovar (“Pool of Nectar”, after which the town is named), and the main shrine, the golden-domed Hari Mandir (“Temple of God”). Several holy and historic sites line the Parikrama, among them a tree shrine called the Dukh Uhanjani Ber, said to have miraculous powers for healing diseases, and the Athsath Tirath which represents 68 of the holiest Hindu pilgrim shrines.

The Parikrarna continues on to the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh religious order. Its construction began in 1589 and was completed in 1601 by the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, when he began organizing the Sikh community into a political entity. The upper floors were built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh As part of te daily ritual, the Holy Book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, is carried out of the Akal Takht to the Hari Mandir at daybreak. The head priest then opens it for the uaq, the message for the day. From dawn till late at night the temple echoes with the music of regis , musicians employed by the temple trust to sing verses from the Holy Book.

Every visitor entering the Hari Mandir (including non-Sikhs) is given a dollop of sweet prasad (holy offering), and no visit is considered truly complete without a meal at the Guru Ca Hangar, a free kitchen where all visitors are fed a simple meal of dal-roti (lentil curry and bread). Run by volunteers, this kitchen can feed 10,000 people a day.

Its vast hall, which can seat 3,000 . people at a time, serves as a symbol of the caste-free, egalitarian society that the Sikh gurus strove to create. The notion of kar-seua – (voluntary manual labour for a cause) is an important part of the Sikh order. Tasks such I as sweeping the temple precincts, cooking at the langar or looking after the pilgrims’ shoes, are enthusiastically performed by volunteers either as penance or as acts of worship. The final evening prayers are over by 945pm ,when the Holy Book is reverently closed and carried in a silver palanquin back to the Akal Takht. The floors of the temple are then washed with milk and water before the doors of the Darshani Deorhi are closed.

when the Holy Book is reverently closed and carried in a silver palanquin back to the Akal Takht. The floors of the temple are then washed with milk and water before the doors of the Darshani Deorhi are closed.

A few other shrines are found just outside the Temple complex. These include a shrine dedicated to Guru Hargobind Singh, as well as the nine-storeyed Baba Atal Tower which marks the spot where Atal Rai, the son of Hargobind attained martyrdom. The 16th-century Durglana Temple, dedicated to Durga, lies 2 km (1.3 miles) northeast of the Golden Temple. Jallianwala Bagh, also a short distance from the Golden Temple, is the site of an infamous massacre that took place in 1919. Hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down in this enclosed garden on the orders of General Reginald Dyer, who arrived heading a platoon of infantry from Jalandhar. It was an event which helped hasten the end of British rule in India. A memorial to those killed stands at the east end.

ENVIRONS: The last checkpost on the Indian border is at Wagah, just 9 km (6 miles) from Amritsar, separated from Attari in Pakistan by a thin ribbon of road. Each evening, as buglers sound the last post, two splendidly uniformed guards on either side of the border goose step across to the flagpoles to lower their respective national flags. Their steps are matched so perfectly that it is like watching a mirror image of the same exercise. The ceremony, which attracts crowds of spectators on both sides, is a poignant reminder of the Partition of 1947 when Punjab was divided between two nations.

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